November 19, 2012
Adequate funding is crucial to ending America's HIV epidemic. But until we have a vaccine, we also need to reduce the frequency of risky sex -- especially among teens who may have had abstinence-only sexual education or none at all.
Two weeks ago, we reported Florida study findings that adolescent girls given meaningful sex education including information about condoms, other birth control methods, and STIs, had less, not more, sex. Fears that mentioning such things will make kids have more sex at earlier ages are simply unfounded. Equally unfounded is some parents' belief that they have control over their teenagers' sexual behavior. The focus of sex ed for adolescents, like the focus of drug policies, should be reducing the harm of behaviors we may not want but cannot entirely prevent.
A day later, Toronto's The Star reported results of a study testing on-line sexual education for teens in Colombia. The study authors found that sexually active teens participating in the study had reduced rates of STIs and increased condom use. The study proposed that students may find internet-based sex ed easier to relate to than human-led instruction classrooms full of their peers, and also that internet-based instruction may be easier to scale up in resource-poor environments, where, as the authors note, "... sexual risk-taking in developing countries has graver consequences because governments lack the resources and health system organization to treat diseases such as HIV" (our italics). That's the case in Colombia, and it's also the case across much of America.
Later in the week, ScienceDaily reported study findings that a majority of sexually active, perinatally infected adolescents in the study population did not disclose their status to their first sexual partner. Clearly, meaningful sexual education for these adolescents and their HIV-negative peers needs to include information about successful negotiation strategies -- for disclosing or being disclosed to, negotiating condom use, and recognizing and leaving unequal and abusive relationships.
Teenagers aren't angels, and we shouldn't expect them to be. They need to know the biological facts, and they need to learn negotiation skills. We want them to grow up. That may not happen if we don;t teach them what they need to know.